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Fall 2009 Newsletter

No Symbols Where None Intended: Samuel Beckett's Doodles

By Bill Prosser

Photo of Samuel Beckett by an unknown photographer. Click to enlarge.

Photo of Samuel Beckett by an unknown photographer.

Although popularly thought of as a rather dour and ascetic writer, there is a wonderfully playful aspect to Samuel Beckett's creative output: the pictorial array of raggle-taggle characters and baroque broidery that scampers through his notebooks and manuscripts. Continuously—from decorating 1930s exercise books to embellishing the scraps of paper bearing his 1970s "Mirlitonnades"—doodling provided an amiable outlet when, yet again, he found himself up against the obduracy of words.

Beckett's interest in the visual arts is well known. During his exhaustive travels around Germany in the 1930s he kept notes detailing his responses to the Old Master and more modern paintings that he had seen. More communally, throughout his life he formed close friendships with a number of artists, including Jack B. Yeats, Bram Van Velde, Henri Hayden, and Avigdor Arikha. However, his appreciation of fine art seems to have had no discernibly direct effect on his own spontaneous drawings, which repeatedly appear to have earthier, and more mixed, antecedents.

Although Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men Contemplating the Moon may have given rise to the setting for Waiting For Godot, Beckett also warmed to music hall routines and the silent cinema. He once wrote to Sergei Eisenstein asking for a job, and one of his favorite comedians, Buster Keaton, appeared as the central character in his 1964 film, Film. He enjoyed the German cabaret comic Karl Valentin, and borrowed the Marx Brothers' "three hats for two heads" muddle to use in Godot. This varied visual diet gave him an ingested feeling for caricature that flourished as absent-minded glosses to his written texts.

For instance, while none of the figurative drawings necessarily represents anyone in particular, the general iconographic mood of doodles on his "Human Wishes" manuscript, written in the late 1930s, is one of comic strippery. Despite including three crucified figures (with all the obvious critical attention and interpretation that this might bring), his 70 tiny characters share the vibrancy of comics and cartoons from the period, such as Comic Cuts and Felix the Cat.

Or to take a more comprehensive example, the six notebooks comprising his novel Watt, largely produced while Beckett was in hiding during the war, exhibit a wider expanse of drawn imagery. This ranges from a small, gat-toting, swastika-like figure to other eccentrics who can be either exotically uniformed or barely clothed. One character might sport tattoos, while another gamely juggles. Occasionally, as if exiled from a medieval bestiary, animal bodies sprout human heads (and vice-versa), while around them geometric vegetations gestate into flowers and faces. Monkeys cavort, tumblers balance, and St. George spears the Dragon. There is even a tiny, prescient drawing that looks uncannily like eye-patched Buster Keaton as he appears, much later, in Film.

Doodles. Click to enlarge.

Doodles from the "Watt" notebooks by Samuel Beckett. Copyright © 2009 by the Estate of Samuel Beckett. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

Common denominators abound too. For instance, a further monstrosity trawled from medieval imaginations—this time a bodiless head scurrying along on two legs—occurs frequently, as do large-nosed, looping profiles (usually facing left) wearing bowlers, cloches, or skimmers. Curved stick-figures in animated poses, along with dangles of loops, spirals, and hooks in intricate combination, crop up recurrently. As a rule, shaded lines running diagonally upwards from left to right, the direction most natural for right-handers, give any additional tonality.

The later Watt drawings have a developing, balanced naturalism in the way figures walk and stand. But in the single notebook in which Beckett wrote what is certainly his best-known, if not his best, work, En Attendant Godot (1948-49), the doodles have become more complex and idiosyncratic, many with little of the directness and simplicity of their earlier counterparts. His more abstracted characters are now generally constructed by compacting geometrical and natural forms, often with rhyming variants of overall bracelet or hatched shading that together produce a matted, clogged aesthetic.

This congestion proved no drawback in the longer term, however, as for the next 30 years Beckett's doodles repeat, and to some extent develop, his earlier themes. Simple arithmetical amoebae flourish, frequently with tonal or alphabetical decoration. More complex interactions between naturalistic, abstracted, and organic forms coalesce into strange and occasionally beautiful configurations. The abundance of spikes, shards, forks, and zigzags is counterbalanced by an equally resplendent number of domes, bows, arcs, and billows. Diffusion is as likely as density, exuberance as laconicism.

It is often tempting to parse spontaneous drawings such as these looking for particular psychological meanings. At just about the time Beckett was embarking on his play Human Wishes three psychologists collected over nine thousand doodles submitted by readers to a newspaper competition and spent several months subjecting them to aesthetic and statistical analysis. They came to the conclusion that no conclusions could be drawn over particular pictures, as without the specific comments of the artists concerned no psychological interpretation was possible. Just as in psychoanalysis more generally, it is the nuanced particulars of individual responses that matter.

As a result, no ready-made windows into Beckett's complicated frames of mind are likely to be found in his drawings. Instead, we must be content with the pictures as we see them, in all their off-hand dexterity and muddled clarity.

As he himself famously insisted, "no symbols where none intended."

Bill Prosser is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading.

Learn more about Beckett in the web exhibition Fathoms from Anywhere: A Samuel Beckett Centenary Exhibition at www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/beckett

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